THE BLEEDING EDGE, AND GUMS ,
OF NUCLEAR INTELLIGENCE
A generation before neocon happy warriors and hegemony buffs started hooting up faulty WMD ntelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq, George Kennan observed that if mistakes were grounds for dismissal, not an intel analyst would remain in the corridors of power. WMD’s and nuclear ambitions have never been easy to fathom. America began sharpening the tools to harvest technical intelligence before the birth of the atomic bomb, but some early gathers of nuclear secrets ended up cutting themselves in the process.
Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, General George Marshall ordered espionage covering all enemy "scientific military developments. “ In 1941,the OSS followed up with
a secret program, code named ALSOS, to preemptively sabotage any Axis nuclear effort. Its most famous operation sank a ferry carrying heavy water bound for Germany,and crippled the unique Norwegian plant that produced it.
Not all ALSOS missions were as successful. Hearing that Hitler's chief nuclear scientist, Werner Heisenberg still lectured at Swiss universities, OSS Zurich station chief Alan Dulles suggested placing an agent in the audience. If Heisenberg’s physics talk suggested Nazi A-bomb progress, he was to be assassinated forthwith. Dulles put this sporting proposal to ALSOS chief scientist. But Samuel Goudschmit, declined on the grounds that "Physicists do not shoot other physicists."
That wasn't the end of ALSOS . After D-Day Allied forces found all the thorium in France
Wild Bill Donovan . the OSS head, was not amused by the rest of the suitcase’s contents. It was full of Thorium toothpaste samples and advertising copy, some of which you can see here, and letters from Petersen’s aged mother, a Hechingen native . Looking for evidence of WMD's, ALSOS had uncovered an Austrian cosmetic company’s diabolical postwar plan to displace popular radium-based Radiogen toothpaste, with cheaper ( and safer) thorium product. Since gas mantles glowed like limelight, they were ready to plaster postwar billboards with :
Decades later a Cold War audit revealed France
It took a year to exorcise this seemingly catastrophic failure of intelligence.Only after the Surete' rounded up the usual suspects to no avail did the Quay d'Orsay think to dispatch scientists to the rich mines of Gabon, and panic gave way to postcolonial tristesse tropique : Mother Nature had stolen the missing African uranium. 1.8 billion years ago, undecayed Uranium-235 was so much more abundant than today that the rich deposit had lit up as a natural nuclear reactor that spluttered merrily with only light water as a neutron moderator. fissioning out of existence 7 tons of what the French would seek to extract eons later- and releasing pehaps a ton of plutonium directly into the environment .
No one belabored FDR for invading Normandy without first sorting out the toothpaste question. Or censored him for using Berg's All Star team to spy on the Japanese Empire between exhibition games . Because the imperative of overthrowing tyranny existed independently of the desire to stop the Axis from going nuclear.
As politics refocuses attention on the uranium -free Affaire Nigerien, some may find consolation in the classics. Pliny wrote "There is always something new coming out of Africa" , but new isn't necessarily true. Pliny’s Natural History ranked unicorns and basilisks a creatures of massdestruction on a par with Carthaginian war elephants.
Since Rome often based its foreign policy on analyzing the entrails of sheep and the flight of eagles, the Republic naturally suffered its share of disasters. Yet its Senate Intelligence Committee never threw an Augur or an Haruspex to the lions. They got off easy by practicing what Kennan might style The Wisdom of the Ancients. Whenever Eagle-watchers and Sheep-Int analysts met on the way to the forum, they customarily fell down laughing at each other’s outlandish costumes – and latest mistakes.